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THE ARTS | THE NEW TV SEASON

CBS is going out on a limb

Wife-swapping, vampires, a mob boss and a musical mystery are on tap.

May 17, 2007|Martin Miller and Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writers

New York — THE sleepy, single eye of CBS flew wide open Wednesday, as the traditionally conservative network showcased a small but colorfully uncharacteristic slate of new shows for its fall prime-time line-up.

Known for its reliable stable of crime dramas that attract older audiences, CBS staked out new territory with five new series -- three dramas, a comedy and a reality program -- that delve into the world of a Cuban American godfather, a romantic vampire and a singing gangster. CBS is the most-watched network, but is second to Fox in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic, and it's actively seeking out younger viewers.

CBS also announced a midseason pickup: another dramatic series called "Swingtown," that may be its most daring. Set in the '70s suburbs, the show explores, among other things, open marriages. It will join the returning "New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Amazing Race" sometime during the season.

"I don't think a lot of people thought we would actually really first produce the pilots and then actually put them on the schedule," said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. "We wanted to stir things up and that's what we did."

Although it can boast the most total viewers, CBS has long felt cheated out of the buzz and hype of the fall's new programming, in part because their choices have been relatively safe. But with a strong schedule and few holes to fill, the network was emboldened to experiment.

In "Cane" (10 p.m. Tuesdays), Jimmy Smits returns to television in a drama about a Cuban American family in Miami that runs a successful rum and sugar business. The cast includes: Nestor Carbonell as Smits' womanizing, greedy brother, Hector Elizondo as the patriarch and newbie Paola Turbay from Colombia. Created by Cynthia Cidre ("The Mambo Kings"), the show will sometimes be subtitled, and will include reggaeton in its soundtrack.

"It has a little bit of 'Scarface,' which isn't bad," Tassler teased.

"Moonlight," from producer Joel Silver of "The Matrix" trilogy, is about a private investigator who is a vampire. It's also a love story of sorts: he was bitten by his bride 60 years ago. The lead is Alex O'Loughlin, and it will be on at 9 p.m. Fridays.

"Viva Laughlin" (8 p.m. Sundays) is a remake of the British success "Viva Blackpool," a mystery drama with music set in a casino in Laughlin, Nev. Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) is a family man just trying to make it but "he just might have a little Tony Soprano in him," Tassler said. "He's the classic underdog."

About the new unconventional musical element in the show, Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS Corp., later said: "Was I scared that people were going to say, 'Oh my God, they're doing 'Cop Rock'? Yeah. Dirty word. But it's not 'Cop Rock'.... It's a lot of fun. This can play in the Midwest and all over America."

"Swingtown," set in 1976 in Chicago, is about wife-swapping (no, not in the ABC way). Created by Mike Kelley ("The O.C.") and directed by Alan Poul ("Six Feet Under," "Big Love" and "Rome"), the network will air this in a 10 p.m. time slot because of its mature themes.

The only comedy CBS picked up for fall is "The Big Bang Theory" (8:30 p.m. Mondays), about two computer geek buddies (Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons) who encounter a sexy new neighbor (Kaley Cuoco) and quickly learn that scientific principles do not apply to matters of the heart. It's created by Chuck Lorre of "Two and a Half Men," the No. 1 comedy on television.

"Kid Nation," a new reality series, was going to premiere this summer, but at the last minute, CBS decided after reviewing ABC and NBC schedules to open it in the fall at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. The show places 40 children, ages 8 to 15, in a New Mexico ghost town without their parents and with the goal of developing a working society. No one gets eliminated at the end of each week, but one child is awarded a heavy (as in it's actually worth a few bucks) gold star. Tassler teared up while describing the inspirational quality of the show, which is produced by Tom Forman ("Extreme Makeover: Home Edition").

Most years, by the time CBS executives convene in New York during the week of upfronts, the schedule is pretty much set. Not this year, Moonves said. The new show selections were marked by intensive late-night wrangling, especially over the midseason show "Swingtown," whose themes of sexual experimentation polarized the executives.

"This was one of the most unusual years," Moonves said. "When you talk about 'Swingtown,' a lot of people feel very passionately, excuse the term.... There are conservatives in the room, liberals in the room, but that's what makes CBS great."

The freewheeling mood infused the morning news conference with CBS executives, which included Tassler and the network's scheduling chief, Kelly Kahl. As the pair laid out their fall lineup, they took potshots at the competition.

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